Spring garage sales are seasonal celebrations in my Midwest town. Along with cleaning out the clutter, the high point of these community events is visiting with old friends who stop by and meeting new folks—getting a taste of the amazing difference in humanity.

“Edna” was the perfect example. I didn’t have the baby clothes she was searching for, but after visiting with her for close to an hour, I wanted to rush out and buy some for her. (Apparently my enabling includes strangers as well as family members.)

During our chat, I found out that Edna worked three jobs, one full time and two part time. The job interview she’d had that day was for a third part-time job. As Edna talked, she collected items from my garage sale, placing them on the picnic table where I sat, and told me how much her daughter could use each item for her house.

“I sure hope I get the job,” she confided. “I need it to help my daughter pay for her car. She bought a new SUV last year, and she can’t make the payments now.” She then told me her daughter was a stay-at-home mom with two children and a third on the way.

Now, I’m the first to admit I’m not a very shy person, and I probably overstep my boundaries from time to time (okay, often), but this is a matter near and dear to my heart. I had to know more about this situation. Why was Edna responsible for making her daughter’s car payment? How long had this been going on? I looked at Edna’s car, a late-model Ford in reasonably good condition from what I could see, yet far from new.

“How many hours a day do you work now?” I inquired.

She rattled off her schedule. “About fifteen hours on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Tuesdays and Thursdays are short days at only ten hours each, and on weekends I only work five hours each day. That’s why I’m looking for another part-time job on weekends in the afternoons.”

My heart ached. This woman worked seven days a week! Why did her daughter need a new SUV that I was told cost almost $500 per month in bank payments—not counting gas, insurance, and maintenance? I thought back to my first car when my son had been a baby—a sturdy, used Dodge Polaris bought at a police auction. Sure, the times had changed, but when did parents start feeling responsible for supplying their adult children with vehicles better than their own at the cost of their health? How long could a woman in what I presumed to be her late fifties be expected to keep this grueling schedule? And did her daughter even care?

Perhaps the saddest part of all is the lack of recognizing this enabling lifestyle for what it is: a crippler of both the adult child and the parent. But once we do finally own up to our negative behavior for what it is—and how damaging it’s become—we won’t be able to pick up where things left off. God willing, we will feel a deep conviction in our soul to make changes, to stop our enabling behavior.

One of the critical first things we must immediately stop is the flow of money to our adult child. We must stop being the First Bank of Mom and Dad or the Community Bank of Grandpa and Grandma. And that is particularly important in today’s economy, when funneling unlimited funds to our adult child could not only cause them harm but also force us into bankruptcy—or worse.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not advising you to march up to your adult child and declare, “That’s it! The gravy train stops right now!” The flow of money must stop, but unless your adult child has broken the law and been told to leave your home immediately (as in the case of drugs or other criminal behavior), this severance of financial dependency must first be carefully considered and planned by you and your spouse and any other enablers in the immediate equation: grandparents, siblings, and other family members and well-meaning friends.

No matter how angry we may be, no matter how broken our heart, we must act in love. Our goal is to release and empower our adult child, not to bring them even more pain than this change in our behavior will most certainly cause. Therefore, stopping the flow of money is not the only thing that must be carefully planned.

Remember, although it is our prayer that our adult children become healthy, independent, and responsible members of society, just because we develop a plan and present it to them does not guarantee they will joyfully embrace the change or even recognize it for the opportunity that it is. What they do with their lives as a result of our implemented boundaries—financial or otherwise—will be their choice.

Our primary goal is not to stop their negative behavior, or to stop their drug or alcohol abuse, or to stop their lying, cheating, stealing, or the never-ending chain of excuses we’ve grown accustomed to hearing and they’ve grown accustomed to delivering. We’d love for all those things to stop—but it’s up to them to change their lives, their behaviors, their habits. Our part is to stop our negative behaviors, gain SANITY in our own lives, and if we’re married, in our life as a couple. Stopping the flow of money to our adult child is often the most crucial—and the most difficult—step we will take in this process.

Whether we are on a fixed income or blessed with abundant financial resources, whether their request is for $20 or $20,000, we must stop coming to the rescue with our checkbook. Our money must cease being the life preserver that buoys up our adult children, keeping them afloat through yet another storm. We might be amazed at just how well our adult children can swim when given the opportunity to do so. More important, they just might be surprised at their own ability to survive without our financial life support, a powerful lesson that no amount of money can purchase.

Developing an Action Plan

Once you’ve come to the decision to cut off the flow of money to your adult child (and possibly set other boundaries as well), you must first develop an action plan. Begin by making a detailed list of all your personal life goals and the ultimate destination you wish to reach in your lifetime. I’m not talking about what you would like your adult child to achieve. This is about you. This is your chance to dream on paper. Everyone must do this individually, and if married, you must also do this as a couple, making sure your ideas of a destination are compatible.

For example, if my goal in life is to raise cattle on a ranch in Wyoming and my husband’s goal is to make a killing on Wall Street and live in a plush condo on Central Park, then we have a bit of a problem, a failure to communicate, as it were. However, it is not unusual in a marriage where the focus has been too long on an adult child and not on the marriage, for a couple to get out of sync in their ultimate destination as husband and wife. That’s why it’s so vital that we begin to communicate openly, without reservation. We must understand that not only are we presenting our adult child with a new paradigm, but as a couple we are also entering a new stage in our marriage. Our roles as parents of an adult child are going to change, starting now. We may need to correspondingly adjust our goals as a single adult or as a married couple.

Remember the oft-quoted definition of insanity:  Insanity is repeating the same behavior and expecting different results. Now is the time to stop repeating the behavior that has not produced the desired results. Now is the time to change course, to stop believing the lie that this is the last time you will financially bail them out. It’s time to stop destructive behaviors and patterns, and start charting a firm and focused course that will get you—and your spouse—to your ultimate destination.

If in the course of your new journey your adult child manages to find his way as well, this will be an answer to prayer. And although there is no guarantee that your new choices will be embraced by your adult child, you still need to make them….for your child’s sake and for your own piece of mind. 

Published May 1, 2009.

If you’re a hurting parent who dearly loves your adult child but longs to see him at last take responsibility for his life, please take a moment to watch the short theatrical video clip “Stop Giving Them Money” (Episode 3) on the audio/video page of our web site. It could save your sanity—and maybe even your adult child’s life.


Adapted from Setting Boundaries with Your Adult Children, Six Steps to Hope and Healing by Allison Bottke © 2008. Harvest House Publishers. All rights reserved. Visit www.SettingBoundaries.com